Killer roads a legacy of neglect

AMBULANCE officer Michael Swinbourne has a scrapbook filled with hundreds of articles documenting 11 years of accidents on North Coast roads.

The Evans Head paramedic is more aware than most of how dangerous North Coast roads are, and he wasn't surprised to hear that rural roads on the area also could be the busiest rural roads in the state.

"I can't wait for the day I don't have any articles to cut out about crashes in the area," he said.

It's easy to assume that day won't be any time soon.

According to figures from NSW Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) counting stations from 2004, regional roads on the North Coast are probably the busiest in the state - a disturbing statistic considering these roads are also among the most dangerous.

NRMA president Alan Evans agreed that the combination of high volume traffic and poorly-maintained roads could be a contributing factor in the high number of accidents on rural roads in the area.

"People are advised to drive to the conditions of the road. But a simple mistake on a road shouldn't result in death, but it does," Mr Evans said.

"Many of the rural roads in Northern NSW have an AUSRAP risk rating of two out of a possible five.

"AUSRAP star ratings involve an assessment of the design elements such as lane and shoulder width, the presence of safety barriers and other key features which are known to have an impact in the likelihood of a crash and its severity."

According to traffic accident analyst Grant Johnston, from Grant Johnston Consulting, the implications of high traffic volume on rural roads is extensive.

"These roads will deteriorate quicker because of the high volume of cars which use them, and this means more money will need to be spent on the roads to maintain them, he said.

"Also, because Northern NSW gets a lot of rain, water causes a lot more damage to roads here than in other areas."

Aside from the physical upkeep of the roads due to high traffic volumes, Mr Johnston said the mix of drivers using rural roads in the area was "effectively incompatible", increasing the risk of accidents.

"You have semi-trailers driving from Sydney to Brisbane sharing the road with mums and dads taking their kids to school and people delivering their produce from rural areas to town centres," he said.

Michael Swinbourne's collection of articles recounting crashes in the area is chillingly impressive. It fills two large folders and includes stories with headlines such as: Killer highway's worst day, Tragic race against time and Not again - Two dead in four car pile-up.

The headlines reflect an alarming record of accidents on our local roads and the Pacific Highway.

According to an NRMA audit released in January this year, 120 people have lost their lives and 1772 people have been injured on the Pacific Highway in the past three years.

Mr Swinbourne, who has been an ambulance officer for 30 years and a paramedic at Evans Head for 11 years, attended the Killer highway's worst day crashes in 1993. He recalled the scene where two fatal accidents happened at New Italy within 15 minutes of each other.

"I remember one man died and then 15 minutes later, just 10km down the road, two women died," he said.

"Images from that day will be stuck in my head for ever, and accidents like that change peoples lives for ever."

However, Mr Swinbourne said things had improved since he began as a paramedic 11 years ago.

"We used to attend a lot more accidents in the early 1990s, but things have definitely improved following various highway upgrades - but things could improve more," he said.

"Obviously, wherever there are cars and people there will be accidents, but if the highway was separated into a duel carriageway and people took more breaks when they were driving, it would help reduce the number of accidents."
Lismore mayor Merv King said the high use of our rural roads came as no surprise.

"We are certainly aware our rural roads get used a lot and we wish we had more money to do some work on them," he said.

"One solution would be to give the council money from the GST, that way everyone would be contributing funds to the upkeep of the roads and not just those who pay rates."

Cr King also said many residents were unaware different roads in the area were the responsibility of different bodies.

"The Bruxner Highway and Bangalow Road are state roads, whereas most rural roads are the responsibly of the council," he said.

In the meantime, Mr Swinbourne will continue to paste together the endless supply of tragic stories from our roads - a chapter he longs to close for good.

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